Terror/Freedom, Calm/Structure

I was talking with a colleague about what makes us most productive, and we came up with this fun 2-by-2.

We were discussing whether he was, in fact, most productive in the top-right corner: namely, when he’s got as much Freedom as possible, and has massive, important goals that are so big that they’re Terror-inducing.

We had a chuckle about this—it’s a caricature, to be sure—but it did get me thinking that this simple 2×2 might be a great shortcut for getting to know each others’ work styles.

For example, I’m also at peak productivity (though not sustainably) when I’m somewhere in the middle of the ‘Terror’ quadrant. A bit of fear leads me to crank out a ton of good work, whereas if things are too calm for too long they feel flat to me.

That said, Terror for too long does wear me down. What’s best for me is hanging out somewhere between Calm and Terror, with enough Calm for predictability and self-care and enough Terror to keep me motivated.

Similarly, I’m comfortable with, and like, a strong foundation of structure; and I find too much structure stifling. I need to be in the middle of that axis to thrive: structure as a jumping-off point for the freedom to dream about and create new things.

I find this 2×2 diagnostically helpful. For example, when I think about work groups that have trouble, the four that jump out are:

  • (Usually) One high-Structure person and one high-Freedom person. The exception is if this high-structure person is an awesome, self-aware supervisor who knows how to give their freedom-seeking team member tons of white space and motivation, while not constraining her too much. Conversely, a high-freedom person managing a high-structure person seems particularly hard to pull off. The high-structure junior person often ends up confused, stressed out or frustrated.
  • (Always) One strongly Structure/Calm person with another strongly Freedom/Terror person unless both are super-self-aware. These two environments are so different that these pairs struggle to find common ground.
  • Too many high-freedom people working together without someone to create structure. Also known as “chaos.”
  • High-freedom people who have been forced into high-structure roles. This is a tricky one because we naturally associate seniority with more management responsibility. That’s why we give management job to successful high-Freedom folks, and then get confused when they (and their teams) struggle.
  • Finally, I wonder if the High Structure / High Terror profile exists and, if it does, what makes that person thrive.

A parting thought, lest we lose the nuance here: maximum productivity does not equate to maximum well-being.

I expect everyone wilts eventually when they feel too much terror for too long. However, I do believe there are folks who have higher ‘terror’ thresholds and who find low-to-medium levels of terror exhilarating rather than off-putting.

We all surely inhabit parts of the framework in different settings and moments. The useful point for introspection is to explore our emotional reaction to each of the four quadrants, and unpack how that reaction impacts our energy levels, our focus, and our productivity.

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